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Developing a set of principles for the design and delivery of greener services

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'Our world needs climate action on all fronts — everything, everywhere, all at once.' António Guterres, UN, Secretary General, Video Message, March 2023

Ned standing up presenting at a conference. He is standing in front of a screen gesticulating.
Presenting a talk on ‘How services can be planet-centric by design’ at the Service Design in Government Conference in Edinburgh, September 2023 

I'm Ned, a service designer at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). In March, I wrote a blog post on why a group of designers and researchers in Defra had come together to discuss the topic of planet-centricity, and played back 10 initial high-level principles we had sketched for the design of greener services.

This blog post will first present the principles in their latest iteration, and then cover what’s next for 2024. The article will conclude by covering the collaborative process we followed, including gathering input from colleagues across government, in order to get the principles into their current state!  

The latest iteration of the principles for the design and delivery of greener services

These eight principles focus on the roles involved in the delivery of services. They attempt to set aspirations for the direction of travel, helping us all become more aware of what the issues are from an environmental impact perspective, and what good practice might look like.

The principles were designed based on feedback gathered through workshops with colleagues across the public sector.

The first four principles relate to the work of the user-centred design roles. They are intended to help you to consider services holistically from a design point of view, including the online and offline impacts. The remaining four principles cover the other key disciplines involved in the design and delivery of services as well as the working practices of teams as a whole.   

Each principle includes some guidelines for putting it into action, and there are links to further reading and guidance for most of these at the end of the blog post.  

Poster for the 8 principles. It includes the titles of each principle.
Download the poster

Research to understand environmental impacts

  • Research to understand user behaviours and environmental footprint (both on and offline) in the as-is (how things are now) so that this can be used as a benchmark to measure new services against 
  • If there is an existing digitised service, map the content and pages and ensure that there is a suitable plan to retire it all when no longer needed 
  • Ensure all project research data is accessible to all stakeholders across relevant projects, to prevent it being lost and not documented causing the same research being repeated in future.

Design to help users succeed first time

  • Design services so users need as few different interactions across different channels as possible in order to complete their goals
  • Start designs with established patterns that will be familiar to users to aid quicker navigation and completion of their goals 
  • Design content that is easy to understand, clearly structured and organised to help users achieve their goals efficiently.

Design for lower user and agent impacts

  • Avoid use of software or technological requirements that will encourage users to purchase new or more digital devices
  • Design services so that impacts from users’ and agents’ physical travel is kept to a minimum
  • Design services so that users’ and agents’ consumption of paper, as well as electricity, heating and cooling is kept to a minimum
  • Display the carbon footprint of services, where appropriate, to encourage awareness of environmental impacts.

Design for low page, document, and communications weight   

  • Only use photos, videos and custom fonts where these add clear value for users. Compress and use lower-resolutions if used
  • Select colours and contrast that balance accessibility needs and energy consumption
  • Design for lightweight communication with users across all channels (e.g. email)
  • Use lightweight publishing formats, e.g. the HTML format instead of PDFs.

Develop green applications, software & systems

  • Choose technologies and languages that are energy efficient
  • Keep code clean and simple, avoiding duplication and create efficient queries
  • If using libraries, these should be efficient, and if using modular frameworks then be selective about which parts to use
  • Build webpages using static rather than dynamic loading where possible.

Optimise processing, transmission and storage

  • Optimise live systems so they use appropriate power and storage
  • Decommission unnecessary systems your project might replace
  • Use a public cloud – this can reduce emissions, particularly if cloud host is a green energy provider
  • Reduce how much cloud storage and data processing your project or programme uses
  • Maximise the lifespan of the equipment used by your system or service, and use remanufactured or recycled technology where possible
  • Keep an audit of your live environments and switch off unnecessary environments when possible, such as unused test environments.

Be smart with data

  • Avoid collecting information you do not need or has been collected elsewhere to reduce the amount of server space your service uses
  • Review data regularly and ensure unneeded/duplicate data is deleted/compressed/archived
  • Identify new opportunities for making better use of data sharing and processing.

Set up teams to follow green working practices

  • Ensure team members understand these principles and which are relevant for their discipline
  • Choose software tools that allow teams to do their work efficiently whilst also being data-efficient 
  • Share documents via use of platforms synchronised with a shared server (such as Sharepoint, Dropbox, OneDrive) rather than email
  • Share examples of good service design practice from an environmental perspective between digital teams
  • Put tech packages and policies in place to mean business travel is only used when delivering absolute benefit.

So where do we go from here, what are our plans for 2024?

The principles we have sketched are very much a work in progress, and there is more work to do to continue to evolve them and provide opportunities for discussion and feedback in 2024. We hope to:

  • Spread the word by talking about the principles at some events, such as the Civil Service Climate + Environment Conference, Services Week, Civil Service Live & Service Design in Government 2024
  • Run an open ‘hack’ day (perhaps simultaneously at a number of locations around the country) for the public and private sector in order to discuss the principles, their use, and other aspects of planet-centred design
  • Identify a number of projects where the principles can be tested out, and feedback gathered on them
  • Develop our thinking on how our principles should interface with other emerging guidelines, such as the first draft of the Web Sustainability Guidelines (version 1)
  • Explore how principles could be applied or be developed for the policy design arena
  • Align with work being done in the Department for Work and Pensions and other places on measuring the carbon footprint of services
  • Continue to work closely with the Digital Sustainability team at Defra and the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) to plan where the principles and associated guidance could be published, including how they relate to the existing Service Standard

Our process: How did we develop the principles in 2023? 

Following the blog post back in the spring, our planet-centred design working group caught the attention of the Digital Sustainability team at Defra, and they invited us to become a sub-working group of STAR (Sustainable Technology Assurance & Reporting), the cross-public sector group that they lead.  

In July, with the help of Transform and Kin & Carta, we ran a cross-public sector workshop to gather feedback on how best to evolve and develop the principles with 25 participants interested in this work from government departments, local authorities and supplier partners. Particular themes emerged around simplifying our use of language, making environmental impacts clearer and widening the scope of the principles to include all disciplines involved at the delivery stage.  

And in September, the principles and the rationale behind them were presented at a talk at Service Design in Government, facilitating another round of feedback and iteration.

Screenshot of a Mural board from the workshop.
Our workshop board on Mural. The session involved us splitting up into 4 groups in breakout rooms. We discussed if participants had experience of designing with consideration of environmental impacts in mind and where synergies and tensions might be with other project priorities before critiquing the principles themselves
Have ideas about how the principles can be iterated, refined and expanded upon?

Please get in touch with us, we would love to hear your ideas. Email

Want to keep up with the progress of the work? Follow the Defra blog.

For my guidance on each of the principles, see our guidance document.

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  1. Comment by Faye whitear posted on

    Great work Ned well done! Very exciting to see this coming to life!

    • Replies to Faye whitear>

      Comment by Ned Gartside posted on

      Oh thanks Faye, and for all your help in getting this stuff to where it is!

  2. Comment by Sheila Maceira posted on

    Great post and interesting articulation of principles. Thanks for the guidelines too, it is great to learn a bit more of how you envisioned the principles coming to life - I find the points about Research particularly great!

    • Replies to Sheila Maceira>

      Comment by Ned Gartside posted on

      Hi Sheila, very glad to hear that you found the post interesting! The research is an interesting one I think too, especially in terms of who's responsibility it could/should be to understand and map the as-is, and then calculate environmental footprints for it, as that is quite a chunk of work for some projects I would think. A combo of user researcher, service design and sustainability team perhaps?

  3. Comment by Alastair Williamson-Pound posted on

    Really interesting post Ned. I like the thought that's gone into this. I wonder if it's possible to interweave some of these principles into the Government Service Standard? Best of luck with it this year.

    • Replies to Alastair Williamson-Pound>

      Comment by Ned Gartside posted on

      Hi Alastair! Thanks for your comment, and like the way you're thinking - we have indeed been having conversations with CDDO about the Service Standard, and there are many other voices keen to see environmental impacts make their way in too. How that happens remains to be determined but hopefully there will be some developments on that front in 2024!